The pain of being displaced

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

IN LATE January some members of the Hindu community living in Rehmatia Colony on the south bank of the Lyari river in Gulshan-i-Iqbal Town — now razed to the ground to give the right of way to the Lyari Expressway Project (LEP) — approached me to narrate their tale of woe.

They had been displaced when their jhuggis were bulldozed. That is how Somi, Seeta, Mitha, Jeeta and about 100 others, including children, were left without a roof above their head on a wintry January day. They had become victims of the phenomenon called development-related forced displacement.

There are many aspects of LEP and the resettlement process that need to be looked into. They will come later. Today I will write about the displacement of Somi and her community and others like her. A development project is supposedly for the benefit of the people. Hence any human dislocation it is likely to cause must be minimized if the government cares for its people. Understanding this paradox, the UN Human Rights Commission of the Economic and Social Council asked some experts to draw up Comprehensive Human Rights Guidelines on Development-Based Displacement. In 1997 they came up with a code to ease the pain of those evicted.

Did those who were involved with LEP — from the president of Pakistan who ordered its construction to the National Highway Authority and the city government of Karachi who were responsible for the planning and execution of the project — read the recommendations of the experts? Considering the haste with which they have proceeded with the expressway project, it seems unlikely that they were aware of these guidelines. And if they were, they just ignored them.

These guidelines make it binding on the state to fully explore all possible alternatives to any act involving forced eviction. Governments are asked to ensure that eviction impact assessments are carried out prior to the initiation of the project with a view to fully securing the human rights of all likely to be affected.

Besides, it is the right of the affected people to be consulted at every stage and be provided with full information. They also have the right to propose alternatives. The state is also expected to pay resettlement costs and no affected person must be allowed to suffer detriment in his living conditions because of the relocation. Above all, people must give their full and informed consent with regards to the relocation site. They must be given 90 days notice prior to relocation and neutral observers must be present at the time of displacement. Sadly, this is not exactly what has happened on the bank of the Lyari.

The foremost need of the hour was for consultation, careful planning, impact assessment surveys prior to undertaking the project. After all, human lives were involved and they could not be treated with disdain. Had the preparatory work been undertaken with diligence the powers that be would not have rushed into starting the work, and the story of the LEP would have been different.

“We are poor, uneducated, so no one listens to us,” is a common refrain I heard when I visited — unaccompanied by officials — the offices of the Lyari Expressway Resettlement Project (LERP), the revenue department of the city government next door, the site of the Rehmatia Colony and the Hawkesbay site. Unsurprisingly, I was nearly mobbed outside the LERP/revenue department by desperate people whose homes had been pulled down and who have been visiting the concerned offices for two months in an exercise in futility.

There was another complaint I heard frequently from various affectees. “I have not been allotted a plot, but my neighbour has been given two.” Worse still was the charge, “I have not received a plot and the person who has received one was not even living here. He came from Dadu and is a party activist.” Another complaint, “I was given a plot but had to forgo the cheque.” Yet another, “They are asking me for Rs 20,000 if I want my allotment paper. I don’t have the money.” (Every person who qualifies for compensation is supposed to be allotted a plot of 80 square yards and a cheque of Rs 50,000 to meet the construction cost.) The State Bank should be investigating these charges since people tell me it is possible for someone other than the allottee to have the cheque cashed with the connivance of the SBP staff.

Mr Shafiq Paracha, who was earlier commissioner Karachi and is currently director of the Lyari Expressway Resettlement Project says he cares for the poor and explains the process. The PC-1 was made on the basis of the initial demarcation (by aerial photography) of the area that LEP wanted cleared. Then it was realized that the numbers to be displaced had been underestimated.

Hence a new survey was undertaken by the revenue department and lists were prepared of the units to be demolished. These were used to make another set of lists that identified who was to be compensated. The resettlement department gets these final lists on the basis of which plots are allotted and cheques distributed. Refusing to take responsibility for the authenticity of the lists, the director LERP says his department only implements the recommendations of the revenue department. The DO enforcement is responsible for the demolition work that is carried out in the presence of the police. There are complaints against this procedure too. “We were given no notice and the bulldozers arrived.” “Only after our homes were pulled down that we received allotment letters” (this is from the lucky ones who have been compensated). A visit to the demolition site was depressing. Desolate people looking despondently at what used to be their homes. With so much of police around, discretion demanded silence from them.

Since human problems were to be expected every town involved (eight in all) have set up committees to look into the cases which are challenged. These haven’t been able to provide much redress. The town nazim, Gulshan, Mr Wasay Jaleel, attributes the problem to the greed factor with “agents” having emerged in the field to exploit the situation. To prove his point he says his committee has heard 225 cases in the last three weeks and found that only 14 qualified for compensation. The affectees counter the charges by claiming that political affiliations make all the difference.

The problem started with the surveys that were undertaken in a hurry. According to the revenue department which was responsible for the door-to-door survey, 24,400 units have been identified — a jump from the 14,811 given in the first survey. The director resettlement says that nearly 16,000 families have been resettled. Given the number of lists floating around — many of them loose sheets from a bigger list — it is impossible to tally them.

A common complaint is that no master lists are available from various departments. The revenue department puts up a list (three or four pages at a time) on the wall outside its office once a week or so. In no time it is in tatters.

The resettlement officials say they have a website (www.lerproject.com) but it is hopelessly outdated. Had comprehensive and scientifically prepared lists been made available at every stage, the charges of lack of transparency would not have stuck. Now, the concerned departments shrug off the seeming discrepancies by accusing the claimants of being greedy and corrupt. Their biggest crime, however, may well be ignorance and poverty.

According to an official of the revenue department, who doesn’t want to be identified, the surveys were crudely done. No scientific methodology was followed and no standardized criteria adopted and too much was left to the discretion of the field staff. The pro forma was defective and presumably, minimum details were recorded in writing. Small wonder, transparency is suspect, especially if it is recalled that there were different categories of units in terms of their use (commercial, residential and places of worship) and structures (leased, pucca, encroachments — regularized and not regularized). The absence of uniformity in the application of the criteria — sometimes every family living in one unit has been allotted a plot, in other identical cases compensation has been considered for only one — has given rise to suspicion of foul play.

With the demolition work nearing completion, many of the original survey staff having been transferred and the local bodies polls having brought a new party into office in the town governments, the transparency of the project may now be impossible to establish.

What we have today is one department passing on responsibility to another. People are running in circles being shoved from one office to the next. Their fault? They are too ignorant to read the fine print and too trusting of those in power.

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